Pre-industrial Anthropocene Detected in Peru

Humans may have begun to pollute the atmosphere earlier than we thought. So says recent research conducted at the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, where scientists drilled into the ice to pull out cores, which they could read like ancient texts.

QuelccayaThose cores show widespread traces of copper and lead starting in about A.D. 1540, which corresponds to the end of the Inca empire and a period of mining and metallurgy when the areas that are now Peru and Bolivia became part of the Spanish Empire. The findings, published by Paolo Gabrielli and colleagues in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest for the first time that the Anthropocene, the geological epoch defined by massive and widespread human impacts on the planet, began about 240 years before the industrial age arrived on the scene with its steam engines and its coal plants.

Scientists have long used glacier ice cores to learn about the Earth’s climates and air pollution and reconstruct pollution histories. In Greenland, for example, they have traced metals found in ice cores back to ancient Greek and Roman mining operations. The pattern of climate changes and air quality are recorded in the ice itself as glaciers grow, accumulating layer after layer of ice, year after year. For example, winter layers are often thicker and lighter in color, while summer layers are often thinner and darker because of less snowfall and more dust in summer. Scientists can read these layers much in the same way they read tree rings to calculate historical environmental conditions, including snowfall and atmospheric composition.

Layers in Quelccaya ice cap (Source: Emporia State)
Layers in Quelccaya ice cap (Source: Emporia State)

Once the scientists have removed the ice cores from a glacier, they can analyze the trace elements in the ice itself. They also study the air bubbles trapped in those cores at the time of their formation to learn about the chemical components of the atmosphere. According to Paolo Gabrielli, an Earth scientist at Ohio State University, anything in the air at the time the glacier layer was formed, such as soot particles, dust and a wide variety of chemicals, will be trapped in the ice layers as well. Gabrielli says there are no glaciers on Earth in which traces of anthropogenic air pollution cannot be detected.

Gabrielli and his team found that lead levels in the Quelccaya ice core doubled between 1450 and 1900, while the amount of chemical element antimony (Sb) in the ice was 3.5 times greater than  before. They also compared data from a peat bog in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and from sedimentary lake records from regions including Potosí and other mines throughout Bolivia and Peru to determine the path the pollution took, and found that most of the pollution was carried to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru by the wind.

In the 16th century, the Spanish colonial authorities forced the indigenous populations in South America to extract ore and refine silver from the mountaintop mines of Potosi. They introduced mercury amalgamation, a new technology, to expand silver production, which lead to dramatic increases in the amounts of trace metals released into the atmosphere.

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Silver Mining in South America Source: La Salle University

“This evidence supports the idea that human impact on the environment was widespread even before the industrial revolution,” Gabrielli said in a statement on Ohio State University’s website.

While the industrial economies in 20th century produced more pollution than any other time in human history, colonial mining should be considered the beginning of the Anthropocene, according to these new findings.

For more information about Quelccaya, look here.

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Public Event On The Anthropocene In New York On Thursday

Glacial moraines, which permit the dating of glacier retreat, in Alberta, Canada (Source: Mark Wilson/Wikipedia)
Glacial moraines, which permit the dating of glacier retreat, in Alberta, Canada (Source: Mark Wilson/Wikipedia)

GlacierHub’s editor Ben Orlove and two other anthropologists will be speaking this Thursday at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This event is a roundtable on the Anthropocene, the term describing the new epoch that has just begun, one where humans have major impacts on the planet’s ecosystems.

SIte of last underground nuclear test in the United States, conducted in 1992 (Source: National Nuclear Safety Administration)
SIte of last underground nuclear test in the United States, conducted in 1992 (Source: National Nuclear Safety Administration)

Geologists can observe the traces of human activities in the geological record, much as they observe other changes that serve to mark off other geological time units, such as the Pleistocene and the Jurassic Period, to name two familiar ones. These traces include moraines which mark the retreat of glaciers, as well as other features such as numerous deep tunnels that form parts of mines, urban infrastructure and underground nuclear test sites, and plastiglomerates or fused bits of plastic waste, sand, rock and organic debris found on beaches around the world. The term Anthropocene is now widely discussed by social scientists and in the media.

This event is a public lecture and discussion and will take place on Thursday, December 18, 2014 at 2:00 p.m. in the Kaufmann Theater. Attendees can use the West 77th Street entrance to the museum, located between Central Park West and Columbus Ave.

Plastiglomerates from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii (source: Geological Society of America)
Plastiglomerates from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii (source: Geological Society of America)

The short presentations will focus on the social aspects of anthropogenic climate change, and consider the role of anthropologists in addressing these issues. It will consider the ways that discussions of the Anthropocene can focus public attention and serve to support positive ways of responding to human transformations of our planet. Their comments will serve as a springboard for discussions with the audience. All three speakers are from Columbia University; their experience with the Anthropocene stretches from biodiversity to migration to adaptation.

Paige West of the Department of Anthropology, Barnard College and Columbia University, conducts research on the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia, Germany, England, and the United States. She is the co-founder of the PNG Institute of Biological Research, a small NGO dedicated to building academic opportunities for research in PNG among Papua New Guineans.

The Economist magazine's 2011 cover "Welcome to the Anthropocene. (Source: The Economist)
The Economist magazine’s cover “Welcome to the Anthropocene”. (Source: The Economist)

J.C. Salyer of the Department of Sociology, Barnard College, is a lawyer and an anthropologist whose work focuses on law and society, immigration law, and social justice. He is the staff attorney for the Arab-American Family Support Center, a community-based organization in Brooklyn, and runs the organization’s immigration clinic. His research focuses on the legal formalism of deportation decisions and how the exclusion of social factors and personal history effect determinations of immigration status. In addition to his work on immigration, he received the William J. Brennan First Amendment Fellowship to work at the American Civil Liberties Union national legal department and was a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey. His teaching focuses on the relationship between social science, law, and public policy.

Ben Orlove of the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, has conducted extensive research on agriculture, pastoralism, fisheries and mining in the Andes, and has recently begun fieldwork in Bhutan. At Columbia, he directs the MA Program in Climate and Society and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. He is also affiliated with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Recent posts in GlacierHub have described his participation in the People’s Climate March last September and in international organizations.

Anthropocene event poster (Source: American Museum of Natural History)
Anthropocene event poster (Source: American Museum of Natural History)

 

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